Widowsilk

Widowsilk
Ville Meriläinen

Beware the mist and what lies therein, in this ethereal tale by Ville Meriläinen

Artwork by Katie Barrett

            

            Every night, Father goes out into the mist to gather widowsilk, and every day, while I sleep, he spins it to take back the earth. Mist pushes over the edges of his creation when the sun sets, but Father has pushed the cloud further. When he began, there was only a tiny island of green around our house. Now, there’s a river and a bridge over it, a field with yellow flowers and a little copse not far from the bridge. Father wants to make a mountain one day, and turn the copse into a forest.

            I dream while he spins to give the weave its form. Without dreams to catch it is only silk. Father says our house was built from wood and Mother made me, but sometimes I’m unsure. Maybe he wove me as well because he needed someone to dream of bigger things than he could.

            While Father collects the silk at night, I wait for him at home. Near the door, under a boarded-shut window, is a dusty piano. Some keys don’t work and give off a twang when pressed, but I play around them, play all night so those hours aren’t as lonely. I mustn’t leave the house. If I did, the mist might take me like it took Mother.

            “Adam,” Father says, tying long strands of widowsilk onto his wrists, as he does every night. They lead him to the greater source, and ensure he won’t get lost on the way. He leaves the strands wrapped on a nail on the wall when he comes home. “It’s time I left. Do not stop playing until I’m back.”

            He locks the door from the outside and I from within. It seems foolish. If something was to happen to one of us, the other would be helpless.

            Still, we turn the keys every night, like Mother wanted.

            I take a seat by the piano and start to play, a somber melody to drive back the horrors lurking outside. Sometimes the window left unbarred clouds over. It doesn’t tonight, letting me see the stars and how they shimmer on the river. I dream of a lake as well, but Father hasn’t gathered enough silk to make it yet. Maybe, when he has the mountains he wants, he could give me the lake to swim in at their feet.

            A shadow moving in the mist jolts me out of the reverie, and I hammer the keys with more force to overwhelm the sound of scratching from outside.

            Father returns at dawn. I don’t know who made the sun, but the mist fears it and we do too. The day gives Father time to spin the gathered silk together with my dreams. I’ve not seen what he’s made of it, not past what I can see through the window, but he promises I can go outside and view it all one night.

            “Today,” he says, rocking me to sleep, “I will make a hill just west of the river, and atop it, a little shrine. When it is safe for you to go outside, we will go there to remember Mother.”

            “Won’t she come back someday?” I ask, eyelids sinking to block out the single intruding beam of sunlight. “Is she not out there in the mist? Don’t you think you could find her?”

            “You know as well as I that you cannot leave the mist once it has you.”

            “But Father,” I say with a yawn. “You do it nightly.”

            “Because I have you to guide me with your songs.”

            I yawn harder. “Does she not hear it as well?”

            “Hush, now,” he whispers, softly, gently. “It’s time to dream, not question.”

            When I wake up, the single beam is a red glare on the floor. Father sits on a stool in the corner, the bundle of silk thin around his hands. The pillow smells of fresh grass and soil.

            “Don’t look yet,” he says when I approach the window. “The sun will blind you if you look at it.”

            “I want to see the hill.”

            “In a while. Wait for stars. They’re kinder on the eyes.”

            I sit with him, swing my feet while he wraps up the remaining silk and throws it in the fireplace. The silk burns with a sweet scent, and between the crackling of fire, it makes a sound like whispers.

            When we have eaten, the glare is gone from the floor and it’s time for Father to leave. “The mist will be thick tonight and you can’t see the hill,” he says. “Don’t try to look for it, but stay on your seat and play. I will need all the help I can get to find my way back.”

            “Very well,” I reply, facing away while he goes to tie the strands. Sourness stays from my voice, but not from my face. I would’ve wanted to see the shrine.

            When he opens the door, a tendril sneaks in and dissipates in the warmth of the hearth. He latches the lock outside and I the one within. He’s right—when I glance out the window before sitting by the piano, I can see nothing. The curtain envelops the house, closer than it’s ever come before. My song is fearful, full of missed notes, and, when my attention slips, I press discordant keys with a wince. It makes no difference—sound is all Father needs to find me—but it is vexing to fumble a song I should know by heart.

            In the simpler parts, when my focus eases, I steal glances at the window. The wisps are like fingers, curling and unfolding as mine do on the keyboard. Though their immaterial taps on the window make no sound, the sight chills me like they could reach past the glass to claw at my back. I play with more force, bang the keys in a defiant concerto to put an ivory mask over quivering limbs. It does nothing to deter the vapour vines, nor even much to soothe my own mind. I tell myself the night will be over soon. Father will come in and hug me and tell me the nails scraping the windowpane are only there in my imagination—but the night stretches on, for far longer than it should, as does the struggle between my conviction and dread. No melodies drive back the dark, no chord I can think of summons Father’s rap on the door. Though the claws on the window cannot reach through, those of hunger and fatigue surely can. I pause only for a minute to stretch my fingers and pour a glass of water, to fill my stomach even a bit.

            I hear it then, the scraping and tapping. The ghost fingers do make a sound, but it has gone unheard even under the most tender diminuendos. Shards of the cup scatter on the floor when I run to the door, throw the lock, and cry for Father to flee inside.

            When my wails cease, only that minute scratching remains. I can’t bear to listen to it. Whoever the stranger is, they either cannot or will not break in. Otherwise, I think, they’ve no reason not to have done so already. So I play, keeping my head so stiff my neck begins to hurt. I refuse to let my gaze wander anywhere near the window, even when I grow too tired to play, when I only want to sleep—but then, with the ceaseless tapping, I don’t dare to shut my eyes. I can’t bring myself to approach the hand. From an angle, I see it stretching out of the mist, but the shoulder and the rest of the body stay within the shroud. Hunger wrenches my gut, but I have nothing to eat. Father makes dinner while I sleep, and without him the pantry is empty. Perhaps I’ve been eating silk all this while, turned to food by my baser dreams.

            The latch clicks outside, startling me from my longing stare at the empty plate on the table. The hand is gone from the window. For a panic-filled spell, I am frozen in place, then realise the inside is still unlocked. It would be too late to do anything if someone wanted in, but there is only silence. I run to the door and lock it, then ask, “Father?”

            No answer.

            “Who is it?”

            No answer. When I listen closely, I hear someone breathing very, very quietly on the other side. The sound sends me running to the bed to curl up and throw the blanket over my head. I can still hear the breathing through the cracks in the wall letting a draft in.

            Eventually exhaustion wins over fear and I sleep through the day, if it ever came. The intruder is gone from the window and the door. The hearth is cold. I light it anew; the cold is unbearable without a blaze. I sit by it to warm myself up, but with the house so quiet, the flame feels threatening instead of cosy.

            Father is still away and the mist remains thick outside. Hunger grows, but water can only sate it so much.

            I slump against the door and listen. There are no sounds in the world when I hold my breath.

            I push myself to standing against the door and, with an uncertain hand, unlatch and open it. Mist swims into the room. It curls around my leg but doesn’t grab me. I peer into the white shroud through the crack, but there is nothing to see.

            “Hello?” I call. There is no answer. The mist parts when I step out and close the door. It hides grass, some flowers too. When I stand in the gloom’s embrace, I finally hear things: the river flowing, leaves rustling and—a twig snapping.

            I burst inside, fall on the floor and press myself hard against the door. No sound repeats. Perfectly quiet again.

            I sit there for hours, or so hunger makes it feel. If Father won’t return soon, I’ll starve.

            Half-expecting someone to break in and devour me the instant I let my weight off the door, I gain my feet and, gingerly, peer outside.

            Nothing but an undulating field of mist.

            I step out and listen to the river flowing and leaves rustling. No twigs snap now, but a glance at my feet only steps from the door makes me gasp. There are two long strands of widowsilk, like Father wraps around his wrists every night.

            Was it him? Did he almost find his way home and got lost when I stopped playing? I dare not call for him, as much as I want to. The hand from before was not his.

            After staring at the strings for a spell, I tie them onto my wrists. I cannot say what makes me do it, but as soon as they are bound, I feel a little better—then, a gentle tug. Swallowing a scream, I let them guide me to wherever they lead.

            I steal a final glance at the house before it vanishes from sight. The walls are horribly burnt on the outside, and I’m stuck wondering whether to fear sunrise more than famine until another tug.

            The strings guide me past the trees Father has made, past the field of yellow flowers until I reach the river. There is someone behind me. I cannot see who it is, but I hear whispers and they are not Father’s.

            The strings respond to my quickening heartbeat with firmer tugs and I move, as does this shadow of mine. When I glimpse over my shoulder, I catch a pale hand at the edge of my sight before it retreats.

            The river ends and falls into nothingness off a steep cliff. This must be how far Father has remade the world. My shadow has stopped. I hear water splashing, like it’s running a hand in the river. When I concentrate, I can hear another sound—crackling, as from the hearth. My shadow splashes louder, as though trying to mask the crackles.

            The silk wants me to jump. It won’t pull, but tugs with more force.

            “Should I jump?” I ask. The splashing stops. I wait a minute and someone shoves me ahead, not enough to make me fall, but I cry out anyhow, spin, and find a pale hand vanishing. I take a running step towards it and hear my shadow staggering away. “Why did you do that?” I scream. There is no answer.

            The strands tug again.

            Without turning, I edge towards the cliff and peer down. It’s much too steep to climb. The strings tug the closer I get, inviting a leap, and my shadow moves closer.

            At the same time, the shadow surges ahead and the strings tug. I cannot avoid it—though I only see it for an instant, the sight of a spider walking upright, a single human arm reaching from its hairy body, makes me jolt, slip, and plunge into the clouds.

#

            I dream of a consuming light, and when I awaken, there is no cliff, no river, nothing to see but scorched earth around me. Did my dream cause this? Did someone weave a wasteland while I slept?

            Through the mist, I see a shadow in the distance. A house, I think, and head towards it, aching from the fall and shivering in the cold. A glaze of ice covers the ground, thin enough to see the dead soil underneath.

            I find the strings still tied to my wrists. When I wind them around my shoulders, I am a little warmer.

            There are demons in the mist here as well, apparitions taking form in the clouds. I think… I think they want to hurt me. I can only hope the owner of the house will let me stay and has a hearty stew over fire. The crackling from before is clearer now, but its harmony with the twisting of the cloud makes me more disturbed than wishful.

            When I close in on the house, a peculiar sound both chills and consoles me at once—clicking, like Mother’s crochet hooks from when our home was bigger and the world was more than mist.

            When I come to the source, it is much, much too late to run. The mist parts once more to reveal bent, hairy legs like spires over me, a row of black moons reflecting my horrified face, and great mandibles over a human body—a body wearing Father’s coat. His face is covered in widowsilk. The fangs draw the strings to wind the cocoon tighter, as though it’s trying to crush his skull with the weave. I am close to fainting, but then a voice speaks out.

            “Oh, Adam. What am I to do with you?”

            The question loosens a reply from a tongue turned to stone. “M-Mother?” I stammer. The spider lets go of the strings and curls over so that its head rotates beneath its body. A woman’s torso appears atop it, melded like an arachnid centaur. A dress ripped in half hides where hair turns to skin, and when the spider’s body brings her to loom above me, I face Mother for the first time in years.

            “You weren’t ever supposed to come out,” she says. Her voice is annoyed, but her arms are folded in a concerned posture. “You can’t go back now. You know that.”

            “But— What—” My eyes dart between her and Father’s body. Every rapid heartbeat chisels the questions clearer from my muddled thoughts. “What have you done to Father? Why are you here? Why did he not come home? Why didn’t you?”

            “You stopped playing,” she says. She looks like she wants to pinch my cheek, but she’s much too high up for that. “You weren’t supposed to do that either. The weave unravelled the moment you did, and now there’s a bundle of silk somewhere in the mist. It takes a lot of work to make a new one from nothing.”

            I blink at the odd answer. “I only stopped when that… creature came. It scared me.”

            “Your sister was always there, Adam. To keep you safe.”

            “Sister? Safe? It was a monster!”

            Mother frowns. “I hope you don’t truly think that. Sophia is what you’ll become, now that you’ve inhaled your end.”

            I gasp, made aware of the mist’s smoky taste. Already my skin bristles and my lungs constrict. I had thought it cold, but now the itch feels more sinister. “Why?”

            With a solemn look, she brings herself lower still to pick up the strings of Father’s face. “Because you are my dream and cannot be remade. This puppet is simple. There is nothing beautiful in his mind.”

            “But, Father—” I bite back the word, look at the faceless body, and decide it right. “Father weaves the world. How can you say that isn’t beauty?”

            “He is only there to feed you and keep you company. He was never good for much else. You are the creator.” She pauses to regard me, sighs. “And now you must give up that gift. You cannot go back into the house. Should ruin invade the dreamer’s haven, we would all be lost.”

            Though I don’t understand what she tells me, her words crumble a chasm where my heart has lain. It must show on my face—she moves her giant body closer to mine to touch a hand to my ear. “Don’t look so scared, Adam. I’m not upset with you, only… sad. But, not entirely—now that you’ve come, it will be a little less lonely. Sophia is sweet, but stays at the house quite often.”

            “Even by day?” I ask, looking around. I see nowhere for Mother to find shelter from dawn. Still, she nods.

            “You will come to like the sun, I think. Now that the mist fills you, you’re free to embrace it and know warmth like no other.”

            “What happens to the dream? Will you give it to your… your puppet?”

            She caresses my cheek. “He will have to find his way back home without your guidance. He may not, but one will, given time. When he comes back and tumbles at our feet, we will have spun the silk into a sister for you and you will pass on your gift. She will sleep until the doll brings her to the house, and she will continue building a perfect world.”

            “Where there are lakes and mountains?”

            “And plains and forests, rabbits and birds, and so many things more.”

            “Will I get to see it?” I ask quietly. A strange ache pulses in my chest, different from that caused by the fall. Though Mother’s chiding was gentle, I feel as though I’ve let her down more than she allows me to see.

            “Of course, darling, but it will be a long time coming before she is done, long before all the harm I’ve done is repaired.”

            I notice there is no ice here. The ground is black beneath the mist. “What happened? Is this my fault?”

            “None of this is your fault.” She hesitates before continuing, looks at the earth around us as she speaks. “I have done something awful, Adam, to your father and your sister. He could not give me the warmth I desperately yearned for, so I sought escape by making a sun of my own.” Her voice falls quieter. “But I didn’t know Sophia had learned a song for me and refused to practice the piano when I wasn’t there to hear it. They came home sooner than they were supposed to, and I shared with them my radiance.”

            My gaze darts to the pale glow in the sky. “Was that not kindness?”

            She gives a wet laugh and brushes her eye. “It wasn’t the gentle warmth of a mother’s love. They didn’t know how perilous it was to try to save someone who didn’t want to be saved, and so the mist took them. I survived only to be wrapped in silk, for so long and so tightly I became one with it. Now I’m left to spin fantasies into comfort until my children have the world they deserve, the one I took from you when my pain found purchase with an overturned candle.”

            The way her lip quivers makes me want to crawl into her arms. “Mother, what did you do?”

            Soft hands on my face, she smiles to hide grief. Her smile is as lovely as I remember. “I forgot to lock the door.”

            Her sorrow makes me reach as high as I can. She looks at me with startlement but brings herself low enough so I can hold her tight.

            “This is not a fate entirely dire, my sweet Adam,” she croons. “You are all here with me, and when we leave, we leave together.” She pulls back and her hand moves to my cheek, gives it a squeeze. “And how grateful for you I am. You’re the little boy I always wanted. Now, come watch. I will show you how to finish the puppet while you eat something. Afterwards, you can help me make another, though the next one will be smaller. I always wanted another daughter as well.”

#

            Every night, the puppet comes out to the mist. When it reaches Mother at the end of the strands, it tumbles into a pile of widowsilk she mends back together, and the distant song guides it home to let the dreamer rest. I don’t know how I ever mistook it for Father. It’s nothing but a doll with a woven face and a coat that looks nothing like his.

            Sometimes, my younger sister peeks out, but to her eyes the world is a white milky cloud. Mother calls her Anna. It’s a good name. We see her clearly, Sophia and I, and if she dares a peek outside, we drop one of the sticks we carry and stomp on it to scare her so that she goes back in to play the piano. She’s braver than I am and I love her dearly. She won’t flinch when we tap the window, but smiles at us. I like listening to her. I played only for myself, but I think she plays for us as well.

            I’m worried she’s too brave. Mother gave her my memories to make her think she’s always lived in the house, but I wonder if she remembers too much and misses her, the way I did.

            One day she won’t fear us anymore and will come to us no matter how many sticks we break. I look forward to it a little, though the thought also saddens me. Sophia can’t talk anymore, the way she’s gone. I’ve begun to turn as well.

            Even so, I would like to meet Anna, but it is not yet the time. She has far too much to dream about.


Ville Meriläinen is a Finnish author of horror and fantasy fiction. His previously published short stories are collected at https://curiousfictions.com/authors/111-ville-merilainen and violin/piano pop recordings at https://soundcloud.com/carcass-eater.


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